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Aquariums and Animal Rights - What's Wrong with Aquariums?

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Dolphins
Rene Frederick / Getty Images
Updated September 12, 2013

Animal rights activists oppose aquariums for the same reason they oppose zoos. Fish and other sea creatures, like their land-dwelling relatives, are sentient and have a right to live free from human exploitation. In addition, there are concerns about the treatment of the animals in captivity, especially marine mammals.

Aquariums and Animal Rights

From an animal rights perspective, keeping animals in captivity for our own use is an infringement on that animal's right to be free of human exploitation, regardless of how well the animals are treated.

There are some people who doubt the sentience of fish and other sea creatures. This is an important issue because the rights of animals are based on sentience - the ability to suffer. But studies have shown that fish, crabs and shrimp do feel pain. What about anemones, jellyfish and other animals with simpler nervous systems? While it's debatable whether a jellyfish or anemone can suffer, it is clear that crabs, fish, penguins and marine mammals do feel pain, are sentient and are therefore deserving of rights. Some might argue that we should give jellyfish and anemones the benefit of the doubt because there is no compelling reason to keep them in captivity, but in a world where clearly intelligent, sentient beings such as dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees are kept in captivity for our amusement/education, the main challenge is convincing the public that sentience is the determining factor for whether a being has rights, and sentient beings should not be kept in zoos and aquariums.

Aquariums and Animal Welfare

The animal welfare position holds that humans have a right to use animals as long as the animals are treated well. However, even from an animal welfare viewpoint, aquariums are problematic.

Animals in an aquarium are confined in relatively small tanks, and can get bored and frustrated. In an effort to provide more natural environments for the animals, different species are often kept together, which lead to predator animals attacking or eating their tank mates. Furthermore, the tanks are stocked either with captured animals or animals bred in captivity. Capturing animals in the wild is stressful, injurious and sometimes fatal; breeding in captivity is also a problem, because those animals will live their entire lives in a tiny tank instead of a vast ocean.

Special Concerns about Marine Mammals

There are special concerns regarding marine mammals because they are so large and they so obviously suffer in captivity, regardless of any educational or entertainment value they may have for their captors. This is not to say that marine mammals suffer more in captivity than small fish, although that is possible, but the suffering of marine mammals is more obvious to us.

For example, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a dolphin in the wild swims 40 miles per day, but US regulations require dolphin pens to be only 30 feet in length. A dolphin would have to circle his tank more than 3,500 times every day to simulate his natural range. Regarding killer whales in captivity, the Humane Society of the US explains:

This unnatural situation can cause skin problems. In addition, in captive killer whales (orcas), it is the probable cause of dorsal fin collapse, as without the support of water, gravity pulls these tall appendages over as the whale matures. Collapsed fins are experienced by all captive male orcas and many captive female orcas, who were either captured as juveniles or who were born in captivity. However, they are observed in only about 1% of orcas in the wild.

And in rare tragedies, captive marine mammals attack people, possibly as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome after being captured from the wild.

What about Rehabbing? Education?

Some might point out the good work that aquariums do: rehabbing wildlife and educating the public about zoology and ocean ecology. While these programs are laudable and certainly not trivial, they cannot justify the suffering of the individuals in aquariums. If they operated as true sanctuaries for individual animals who cannot return to the wild, such as Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, there would be no ethical objections.

What Laws Protect Animals in Aquariums?

On the federal level, the federal Animal Welfare Act covers the warm-blooded animals in aquariums, such as marine mammals and penguins, but does not apply to fish and invertebrates - the vast majority of animals in an aquarium. The Marine Mammal Protection Act offers some protection for whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, sea lions, sea otters, polar bears, dugongs and manatees, but does not prohibit keeping them in captivity. The Endangered Species Act covers endangered species that might be in an aquarium, and applies to all types of animals, including marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates.

Animal cruelty statutes vary by state, and some states may offer some protections to the marine mammals, penguins, fish and other animals in aquariums.

The information on this website is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.

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